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The Bleak World of Eliot's " The Hollow Men".

Stephen is an online writer and former English teacher who is interested in sociology, economics, and literature.


There is a word that we have borrowed from Greek "acedia" that perfectly describes the people who figure in TS Eliot's The Waste Land and the later poem The Hollow Men. Acedia has come to mean listlessness, uninterestedness, and being disconnected from life. It is if you like, summed up by "I don't give a damn".

A person who suffers from acedia is hollow. She has no passion, no fire, and drifts through life like an automaton. Such people are important figures in The Waste Land, but there is a lot more going on in that poem. In The Hollow Men they come to the front of the stage.

The Text


Into The Heart of Darkness

Both The Waste Land (1922) and The Hollow Men were heavily influenced by Joseph Conrad's 1899 novella Heart of Darkness. In Conrad's book, Marlow, the narrator, travels up a large river in Africa to track down Kurtz. Kurtz runs a trading station far upriver and rules the local population with an iron fist. He has lost all moral sense and dies alone. We wonder, along with Marlow:

"Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision, - he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath -

'The horror! The horror!'"

In fact, Eliot wanted to use this passage as the epigraph to The Waste Land but his friend, Ezra Pound, who savagely edited Eliot's first version, suggested that Conrad wasn't classical enough. Still, Eliot managed to use a quote from Conrad's book as the epigraph to The Hollow Men - "Mistah Kurtz - he dead."


The Roaring Twenties

In many ways, Eliot's poem was running counter to the spirit of the age. In America and Europe, economies were booming, and new consumer products were coming within reach of many. In society, women were assuming roles beyond the hearth and home. New movements in the arts, music, and culture may have baffled traditionalists. But there was a frisson of excitement running through society. People danced to jazz and laughed, or some of them did.

It was a new age, but the First World War had cast a long shadow. It had only finished seven years before The Hollow Men was published and was fresh in peoples' memory. The crippled and maimed were still reminding everyone of the price that had been paid.

For a conservative like Eliot, the New Age had swept everything away. Old, time-tested, traditional structures had disappeared. The aristocratic rulers of Europe had been swept away. In Russia, the Bolsheviks had consolidated their power after a bloody civil war. People, some people, might be dancing and laughing but, without the framework that had supported the western world for generations, they had been hollowed out. There was nothing behind the smiles, just empty shells with the smiles painted on.


Hollow Men in a Hollow World

"We are the hollow men

We are the stuffed men

Leaning together

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Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!

Our dried voices, when

We whisper together

Are quiet and meaningless

As wind in dry grass

Or rats' feet over broken glass

In our dry cellar"

These are the opening lines of the poem and they set the tone for the rest.

Every November 5th, children in England construct "guys" - effigies of Guy Fawkes who famously tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. These effigies are to be burnt on a bonfire. Here, in Eliot's lines, we can see these figures, or scarecrows perhaps, animate but dry. They move and even talk, but there is no passion.

These creatures are like zombies, and the world they inhabit reflects their emptiness:

"This is the dead land

This is cactus land

Here the stone images

Are raised, here they receive

The supplication of a dead man's hand

Under the twinkle of a fading star."

The land is as dead as the people who inhabit it. Stone images are the pagan symbols of this new culture, the richness of the past is buried under drifts of choking sand.

The worshipping of stone images suggests that these hollow people and the speaker includes himself amongst them, have lost contact with God. Their hollowness precludes them from ever regaining this connection.

Final Words

In The Waste Land Eliot says of:

"Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled.

And each man fixed his eyes upon his feet."

It's these people that Eliot revisits in The Hollow Men.

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